Bruised O's looking to add punch

Miller's hand OK, but manager seeks answers to slump

`Everybody trying too hard'

Clark, Ripken injuries leave Belle in lurch

April 27, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The good news is that Orioles manager Ray Miller believes his hand isn't broken. The bad news is his lineup may be.

As the Orioles resume their 12-game homestand tonight by opening a three-game series against the Kansas City Royals, the embattled Miller is dogged by situations that have apparently spun beyond his control.

His outburst after Sunday's shocking 11-10 loss to the Oakland Athletics only stoked speculation surrounding his job security. Miller landed several punches against inanimate objects in his office but apparently escaped with nothing worse than a severe bruise on his right hand.

"It'll be all right," Miller said yesterday. "I'm hitting things all the time."

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Miller's lineup.

Admittedly vulnerable to injuries when the season opened, the Orioles have wilted offensively since the April 18 losses of first baseman Will Clark and third baseman Cal Ripken. Even Sunday's walk-assisted, 10-run breakout did little to alter the look of a team shut out three times in its past seven games and no longer able to surround cleanup hitter Albert Belle with credible support.

The 4-14 Orioles, losers of eight of their past nine, have hit only .191 and scored 28 runs in seven games since Clark and Ripken left the lineup. Their overall average has dived from .285 to .251. They have led in only seven of the past 63 innings. Last week's three shutouts equal the number suffered in the previous 260 games.

Belle, who leads the team with four home runs and 14 RBIs, is a notoriously slow starter; however, the past week's downturn neatly coincides with Clark's suffering a broken left thumb in the first inning of a 6-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays nine days ago. Ripken failed to start the same game because of lower back pain later diagnosed as "nerve irritation" and hasn't played since. Clark will miss at least three more weeks.

General manager Frank Wren has begun a search for another power hitter but has so far developed few leads.

The situation leaves Belle exposed within a pressing lineup. His slugging average has dropped from .595 before Clark's injury to .508. His only home run since came Sunday with bases empty, the Orioles trailing 6-0 and Kenny Rogers willing to feed him a 1-1 fastball.

"He's working his tail off. I think maybe he's overstriding a little bit. He's trying to carry things, trying to do it himself. You can't do that," Miller said. "He's a good player. If they're going to walk him, they're going to walk him."

And that's exactly what's happening. Even before this season, many believed the Orioles' renovated lineup made it virtually certain that Belle would receive 100 walks for the first time in his nine-year career. He has received nine walks in 30 plate appearances since Clark was disabled, leaving him with 19 in 18 games. Belle endured a 4-for-21 (.190) week without Clark hitting in front of him.

"For the most part he's laid off pitches," Miller said. "The biggest problem is with two outs they're not going to let him beat them, and they're not going to let [Harold] Baines beat them. Harold's a great hitter and I even see him expanding the strike zone.

"Everybody is trying a little too hard. As a manager you try to curtail that. You have meetings and say, `It's a game of take. You have to take what they give you.' "

Clark's loss has meant regular time for Jeff Conine at first base and in the middle of Miller's batting order. Conine has eight RBIs, including an important double in last Friday's win over Oakland, but he is hitting .152 in 33 at-bats, almost half (15) with runners in scoring position.

"If Will Clark is in the lineup, then Jeff Conine is sitting there [on the bench] as a counter. That's the way you opened the season. That's the way you're set up. But that's not there right now," Miller said.

Missing Clark's .370 average, Miller has embraced little-ball tactics that appear at odds with an older, muscular clubhouse that features Belle as its signature player.

Conine and B. J. Surhoff sacrificed last week while Surhoff and Brady Anderson dropped bunts for hits. The Orioles lead the league in sacrifices, stolen base percentage and walks. They are also next-to-last in slugging average and among the bottom four clubs in home runs. "In my own mind I have to be practical and try to do the right thing. That's all I'm trying to do," said Miller.

That has meant frequently pinch hitting for his No. 5 hitter, bunting his No. 3 hitter and sacrificing in the first inning of Saturday's 3-0 loss to A's journeyman Mike Oquist, an ex-Oriole.

"Obviously if the team is swinging real well and banging the ball you don't do it as much," Miller said. "But when you sit there and see Oquist with a 5.00 ERA and we're hitting ground balls and popping balls to the infield, let's try to create something. You put down a couple bunts, you advance a couple guys, you steal a base."

Miller feels he can't win. In 1998, the Orioles were ridiculed as plodding, predictable, even selfish. Now they're willing to trade outs for bases, yet the scrutiny continues.

"Last year everybody said we weren't an exciting ballclub. Hey, we're bunting. We're running. We're advancing runners. We're just not getting the big hits," Miller said.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Kansas City Royals

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7: 05 TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Royals' Kevin Appier (2-1, 3.20) vs. O's Mike Mussina (2-1, 6.14) Pub Date: 4/27/99

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